KING – The Chess Club Mystery Series – Book 4

 

Chapter One

Zach’s hands shook as he started up the heli. He could hear them shouting and the zing of shots hitting the body of the craft as he jerked it straight up and out of range as fast as it could go. Blood dripped down his face, and he waited until he’d cleared the horse farm before he set the autopilot to head toward Lakeridge, North Carolina.

Once the autopilot was engaged, Zach looked behind the seats and found a duffle with a roll of duct tape, some clean rags, a towel, socks, and a woman’s shirt in it. He   used one of the rags to wipe up the worst of the blood, then folded up the towel and used duct tape to hold it to the wound on his head. With that taken care of, he buckled himself into the seat and hung the headset around the back of his neck so he could still hear and talk but not put pressure on his wound.

“Grant, this is Zach, do you read? Fuck, I hope you guys can hear me. I stole a heli and I’m heading towards Lakeridge. Could someone give me coordinates, please?”

“Zach, it’s Myke. Are you alone?”

When he heard Myke’s voice, he let out a breath of relief before he responded. “I am. I’m close to Lakeridge now, can you give me the location?”

“Here you go,” Myke replied and sent the coordinates. “See you in a few minutes.”

He landed the heli on the lawn between a barn and a huge house, then shut it down. As he stumbled out of the seat, Myke was right there to pull him into her arms, with Grant and Red behind her.

“Are you okay?” Myke asked. “What happened?”

“I stole this heli,” he told Red. “They got in a couple of good shots, but I dropped two of them and got the heli up before took me out.” He turned to Grant. “The girl in your crew is dead, but the guy was with them. He let them in. I don’t know what happened to the pilot. They wanted information on the Key.” He stumbled again and closed his eyes. “I need a shower, pain meds, and food. I don’t want my mom to see me like this.”

“The Master Key?” Red asked Zach. “Wes’s Key?”

“Yeah, that Key. They sounded Serbian or Russian to me, but I didn’t chat them up to try and clarify where they were from,” Zach said.

Grant stepped up and put an arm around Zach’s waist. “You know, for a writer, you sure get in a lot of trouble. I thought writers were like anti-social freaks who sat in a room and wrote all day?”

“Shut up, Grant,” Zach grumbled.

Grant brought him into the house and to a bedroom with an ensuite bath. “Here, I’ll get you some clean clothes while Red takes a look at that head wound.”
Red had stopped in the kitchen to grab the first aid kit and opened it up on the bed beside Zach. “If you need stitches, we’ll have to take you to the med center, but anything else I’m good to go,” he told Zach.

“Works for me,” Zach mumbled and closed his eyes while Red got to work. His wavy dark hair was stuck to the towel with dried blood and his hazel-green eyes were shadowed with weariness and pain. His normally lightly tanned skin was much darker due to his time in South America, but Red could see the weariness and strain in the pallor under the tan.

“Head wounds always bleed a lot,” Red said as he cut the tape that held the towel and peeled it away. He dropped it into the waste can in the bathroom and wet a couple of gauze pads to wipe away the blood around the wound. “Looks like a graze from a pulse weapon. It’s not deep, but I’m going to put some surgical glue on it to help hold it closed.” He put a hand on Zach’s cheek and that got him to open his eyes and look up at Red. “You were lucky, son. That was a close one. I’ll pull it closed, then you go shower–carefully–and when you get out, I’ll put the ointment on it and a bandage to keep it clean.”

Zach met Red’s eyes, and it was the compassion in them that finally broke through the wall of terror. Tears welled up, and Zach blinked them away. “Thanks, Uncle Red. I could use a hot shower.”

Grant and Zach were close in size, so the borrowed blue jeans and t-shirt fit well enough. A brand new package of briefs and another of socks were on the bed next to the clothes when Zach got out of the shower, so he took a minute to get dressed. His own shoes were fine–once he’d wiped the blood off of them. It was a slow process to get them tied once more, though. Every time he bent over, his head spun.

Red tapped on the door and entered, then gave Zach a nudge to sit back on the bed when he saw how pale his face was as he tried to tie his shoes. “Sit your ass back and I’ll finish this. When was the last time you ate anything?”

“I had planned on eating on the shuttle,” Zach replied.

“Then it’s a good thing the best barbecue in the county is outside the back door here. I’ve got some headache meds for you and a bottle of water. You take those, I’ll bandage you up, then we’ll go get you some food and more water.”

Once Red was done, he pulled Zach to his feet and gave him a hug. “I’m glad you’re here with us, son. Now, let’s go show your mom that you’re all in one piece and let her fuss over you, eh?”

“I’m good with seeing her now, with all of the blood gone,” Zach said as they made their way through the house to where the party was going on.

Natalie Hawthorne didn’t let them get more than a few steps outside before she had pulled Zach into a hug. “You scared me, Zachary Hawthorne. I really wish you’d stop doing that.”

Zach hugged his mom in return and smiled wearily. “I’m not trying to. Hey, Red said you’d make sure I got a plate of food. I’m starving.”

With his mother distracted, Zach kept her tucked against his side as she led him over to a table and pushed him into a seat. He recognized his chess club friends, and started to put together who all of the other people were, based on what they’d told him and the research he’d done. There was Grant, so the woman with gray eyes and her dark hair braided up into a twist must be Ellery Adler. Then there was Chase and Cassidy Redbird, her short dark hair and dark eyes gleaming as she leaned into the big man, one hand on the small swell of her belly stood nearby with an older couple he didn’t know. Chase looked like a wrestler with his dark skin, nearly bald head, and arms about as big as Zach’s thighs, but he was a gentle giant and it made Zach smile to see how tender he was with Cassidy.

Logan looked happy for the first time in years as Zach watched him lean into Hudson Hayes, Logan’s lighter curls mingling with Hudson’s dark strands as they put their heads together. Hudson’s blue eyes shone with laughter as Logan said something, and they hugged. It was good to see Logan happy, and Hudson laughing was something he didn’t think they’d see for a while, after the loss and pain the other man had been handed in the past year.

Myke dropped into an empty chair beside him and handed him a beer. “Quick, drink some before your mom comes back and yells at me for giving you booze.”

Zach took the bottle and downed a healthy swallow. “Thank you. I needed that.” He reached out a hand and gave Myke’s arm a light squeeze. “You okay, little sis?”

Mykal Cutler was the one member of the club he’d always been closest to–when she’d let him. Her warm, sable-hued skin stretched over sharp cheekbones, a slender nose and narrow jawline, with full lips drawn into a tight smile as she looked him over. “I should be asking you that, don’tcha think?” Myke’s hair was shorter than everyone else’s, except Chase, who had a brush cut. Tousled curls of medium brown with light purple streaks at the top, the sides and back shaved to stubble gave her an edgy look that was part warning, part invitation.

“I’m okay,” Zach replied. “My headache has faded some and I’m about to get food.” He paused and took a look around, then leaned in toward Myke. “And I’m back with my family. That’s the best part.”

“I’ll be giving you a ride home,” Myke told him. “Your mom is staying in the guest wing at Red and Lacey’s place, and your place will have the bed made and the basics started for you by the time we get back there.”

“I don’t need anyone to do anything for me. I can make my own bed,” Zach replied, just as his mother put two plates down in front of him. One plate was full of barbecue and sides, the other with three different kinds of desserts. Her hazel-green eyes snapped with attitude as she looked at her son. He had her eyes, his father’s hair, and as much as she’d like to deny it, her ability to jump right into the deep end of things.

“Lacey and I are going to head back in a bit and finish setting up your place. We’d already started, but construction wasn’t done until early yesterday,” Natalie told him.

Myke handed him a napkin rolled around utensils from the basket in the middle of the table. “Besides, Miz Lacey has done it for everyone that’s moved in to the Village, so you’re not all that special, Zach. Suck it up.”

Nat gave a snort of amusement and took the seat on the other side of her son. “There you go. Myke has the truth of it for you. Now, I’ll let you eat, but I’m going to want time with you tomorrow at the wedding reception. At least one dance is mine, do you hear me Zach?”

Zach reached out and took his mother’s hand, then kissed her fingers. “I’d be honored to dance with you tomorrow. I’m going to eat, relax a bit, then Myke’s going to bring me home so I can sleep and try to resemble something human tomorrow. I’m feeling the adrenaline crash now.”

Natalie put her free hand to his cheek and kissed his forehead. “I love you, Zachary. I’m glad you made it back to us safely.”

“I’m glad too, Mom–and thanks for the food.”

Myke reached out and picked up a cookie off of his plate of desserts, then took a bite. “I love your mom. She’s really awesome. But you’d better eat up because I don’t want to have to explain to her why you suffocated in a plate of barbecue beans and potato salad because you passed out from exhaustion mid-bite.”

Zach gave a snort and unwrapped his utensils. “Great visual, little sis. How about you find me another beer?”

Myke jumped to her feet and did a little dance. “Maybe I will, maybe I won’t,” she teased, then wandered off.

He watched her go, then turned his attention to his food. Time to refuel and recharge, because the next few days were going to be insanely busy.

 

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